A Brief Tour of Malay Music

Muzik Melayu Asli

To date there are no definite historical records on the origin of Malay traditional music or better known as 'Muzik Melayu Asli'. Even classical Malay texts like Sejarah Melayu are not specific on this subject. However, these texts do describe the grandeur of nobat (palace music to signify the arrival or departure of the royalties or special occasions). The asli music that we have today, perhaps, date back to 200-300 years ago, such as Nasib Panjang, Makan Sirih, and Burung Putih.

The asli music in Singapore could be traced from the courts of Johor and Riau. Generally these songs are melancholic, with a slow tempo. Listeners used to sit down and be reminded of past historical events through the songs. Some of the most popular Asli songs were Seri Mersing, Siti Payung, Laksamana Mati Dibunuh and many more. The songs portray sadness and melancholy to fallen warriors of the past or the loss of a family member or a reminder of a beautiful location in Malaya. The music is soft and simple and is led by the violin and singer most of the time. The melody denotes the sensitivity and subtleness of the composer. As individualism was not part of the Malay traditional culture, hence most composers of asli songs are not known.

As for lyrics, asli songs employ pantun (verses or quatrains) generously. The first two lines of the pantun serve as symbols, while the other two reveal the real meaning. While asli songs seem simple, they prove challenging to today's singers. The tempo 4/4 or 2/2 requires careful voice control.

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'Inang' refers to an elderly woman or 'wet nurse' (inang pengasuh) who is charged to look after a princess. She is normally regarded as the chief maid. Joget inang (dance of inang) is a lively music, for it is meant to tease this special lady. The lyrics are in the form of seloka (humorous verses) describing the beauty of nature, wedding ceremony or in praise of women. The tempo is fast.

Inang is mostly played during royal events of the sultans of Malaya to celebrate occasions related to the royal or the country itself. Inang can also incorporate dancers as part of the music if required.

In the heydays of bangsawan (Malay opera), inang was popular and performed in light, dramatic situation. The music can be played with Western instruments like mandolin and violin, as well as Malay traditional instruments such as rebana and gendang.

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Originated from the Middle East, fast pace. It can be sung in solo or in pairs like an exchange of the teasing pantun. The lyrics dwell on love and customs.

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Ghazal is another form of music that promotes poetry thru music. The lyrics are in the form of syair (Arabian verses). Originally, ghazal was slow paced and melancholic. It was introduced by Persian traders and later performed for the royals. This time however you will get to hear traces of Persian and primarily Hindustani music in the songs. Thus indicating a heavy influence of Indian music in the traditional Malay music. This can be imparted from the fact that many Indians came to Malaya to trade and inevitably some will make their home here and bring along their rich and vast cultures.

Ghazal was originally sung in the Hindi language, accompanied by Indian instruments sharinggi, sitar and tabla as well as the British harmonium and later accompanied by the gambus, guitar, maracas, and violin. According to a famous Ghazal advocate, the late Pak Lomak of Johor, Ghazal was most beautiful when played at night as the peacefulness of the surroundings allows both listener and musician to appreciate the music and poetry much more.

A genre popular in Johor and the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, ghazal or love poem came to Johor from Riau-Lingga before the 1870s.

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The joget is also a form of dance music-lively, fast with repeated, rhythmic pattern played normally in occasions of celebrations in the kampung. The beat is lively and the music promotes social bonding amongst the villagers. The tempo is fast and upbeat to encourage the listeners to take a step forward and dance. Joget in the malay context is to dance. Normally joget (which means dance) involves an exchange of pantun between male and female singers or it can be sung in solo.

The music is led by the violin and accordion and accompanied by the rebana and gong and is very popular in the heydays of the Malay golden era in the 50s with its dance-halls and cabarets.

The joget will culminate into the tandak which serves as an exit for most joget music.

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Ronggeng is another form of joget music, with some touch of Portuguese influence. It was theorised that the Portuguese colonials in Malacca (in the 15th century) were fond of joget because it reminded them of the flamenco dance. Hence the dance steps in ronggeng are fast and robust-in contrast with the grace and demureness of the rest of the Malay dances.

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It came to the region via the the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors and traders. This lively music was later known as Joget Moden in the 1950's and often presented at the various dance halls of entertainment centres or cabarets. Mainly Western instruments are used such as piano, guitar, bongo and maracas.

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A cross breed between Malay joget and Hindi music. The words 'dang' and 'dut' refer to the sound of the tabla (Indian hand drum). Jakarta is the centre of dangdut music in the region.

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Dondang Sayang

As the name implies 'dondang' means to sing or serenade and 'sayang' means love. The music of dondang sayang is a form of music that originated from Melaka, sang by the Malays, the Chinese Babas, and also the Eurasians that came from Portugal as far back as 500 years ago. It is a well known fact that dondang sayang originated from Malacca but ironically most Malaccans are not fluent with the music itself. Nobody knows till today who wrote the song but there have been many guesses to why the song was made. One suggestion was that it was a greeting song whenever the Temenggong (Governor) decides to visit a village. Others say the Portuguese were the ones that gave the song away to the Malaccans because of the heavy presence of the violin and the fact that entertainment was a natural lifestyle of the Portuguese in Malacca.

Dondang Sayang was a very popular form of entertainment before the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and it was often cited as the "Penghulu Lagu" or the main song in any musical gathering.

It is a form of music that incorporates singing and the malay pantun or poetry imbued into the music. The singers normally appears in pairs and exchange poems or what the Malays call "berbalas pantun" during their singing of the song.

The item has never failed to generate interest as it portrays the ability of the couple to outdo each other with their own spontaneous pantun. Most of the time, the words are full of advice and friendly sarcasms that provides comic relief to listeners.

The music is played with the violin as the lead instrument with the rebana. As time passed and the region became aware of the influences of other western instruments, dondang sayang then was accompanied by the accordion.

The tempo is slow and melancholic.

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Zapin is a musical form that originate from the Middle East. When the Arabs came, they not only brought to the region wealth and foreign trade but also the abundance and richness of their beautiful culture. It was unavoidable to not notice the Zapin from the Arabs.

The Zapin incorporates the main instrument of the Middle Easterners that is the oud. The Gambus is the Malay name for the oud. The sounds of zapin can be from mid tempo to fast upbeat tempo. Zapin has its own identity in the dance world of the Malays.

The Zapin can also be led by the violin or accordion. Most of the time, the musicians will exchange solos amongst each other during Zapin to showcase the individual expressions of each musician. The rebana is the main percussion instrument of Zapin.

The lyrics which are in the form of pantun can be sung in solo or in pairs. Hence there are two types of zapin - zapin Arab (Arabian zapin) and zapin Melayu.

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A soothing music with repeated rhythmic pattern, probably introduced by the Portuguese with a touch of Malay flavour in Malacca, sometime in the 15th century and Moluccas and Batavia (the name of old Jakarta) in the 16th century.

In the past keroncong enjoyed a cosmopolitan taste. Even the Dutch colonials and the Chinese loved it. The tempo is slow, with unforgettable beats, melancholic and normally centred on love or love ballads. The main instruments are ukelele, cello, hawaiian guitar and double bass.

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